Honor-Shame Culture as a Tool to Control

As a specialist of Middle Eastern languages and cultures, one cultural concept that I’ve always been fascinated by is the honor/shame dichotomy that is found not only in Middle Eastern, but in Asian, African, and even Latin cultures. Honor of shame has been cornerstones of society since we started to evolve into more psychological complex communities.

“As civilizations formed, each of them grappled with the concept of fear, shame and guilt. These are, in essence the building blocks of society. Every society has its particular ways of dealing with these issues. And each of these issues have different importance, depending on the cultural makeup of that society.”

-Roland Muller, Honor and Shame in a Middle Eastern Setting

The Western world still maintains an element of honor/shame ethos in our concern for reputation and image. This is an inescapable aspect of all human cultures that will never fully fade away, but in the West the risk of not living up to societal or familial expectations is significantly lower than in regions adhering to more traditional, cultural frameworks.

Honor Linked to Female Modesty

There are so many facets to the term “honor.” For example, there are two terms in the Turkish language that denote honor. Şeref refers to the more general sense of honor in terms of one’s moral values and personal integrity, and is usually attributed to men. Namus, on the other hand, is the honor that specifically refers to a woman’s social and sexual conduct.

One of the many factors that contributes to society’s obsession with controlling women’s sexual behavior has been the fact that female modesty has a direct link with an entire family’s honor.The Turkish culture, along with many other cultures, takes the sexual behavior of women very seriously because any hint of a woman’s misconduct can equate mountainous shame and social ostracization for the woman’s family.

A common way that a woman can bring shame to the family is if she has a boyfriend or has married a man against the family’s wishes. In societies where virginity is still very much demanded, a premarital affair is the ultimate betrayal, and a marriage that isn’t approved of by the family is basically seen in the same manner.

Even if she doesn’t have a boyfriend, a woman can bring shame simply by leading a lifestyle that her family/community doesn’t agree with, such as not conforming to modest dress and working outside the home. Seek a divorce and thus defying the traditional role of wife and mother is another way a woman can bring shame.

It is an ironic situation where women hold so much social capital in terms of being able to bring honor or shame to the family, yet it is that very power that causes men to feel entitled to control the women in their lives.

I am more knowledgable on the notion of honor in the Middle East as it pertains to the control of women, but honor-shame culture arises in others areas of life in less extreme ways and can affect men too.

Honor Leaves No Room for Improvement

A big criticism I have of honor-shame culture is that it forces people to compete with an unrealistic standard of perfection. People are expected to maintain a pristine image for the sake of their family/community at all times. This social demand to show no weakness leave little room for self-improvement.

“In the West, critical self-analysis is a laudable quality. This is precisely why psychoanalysis was historically so well received among Western intelligentsia. On the other hand, the notion that one should open up to a “stranger” (the therapist) about one’s fears, insecurities, and mental frailties is anathema to the Middle Eastern ethos. This is a sign of shameful weakness and it is generally despised.”

-Gad Saad, Psychology Today

By not allowing for healthy self-reflection, honor-shame culture begets arrogance and stubbornness that often hurt people in their interpersonal relationships. In this way, being considered pig-headed is deemed a lesser sin that admitting to a mistake and simply moving on.

Part of what I think breeds this obsession with a perfect image is that some of these cultures are extremely gossipy where everyone is taking everyone else’s inventory. Everyone’s happy to gossip about others while trying desperately to ensure that they themselves are the object of gossip.

Honor as a Means of Familial Obedience

Family values can be important and helpful in providing a solid foundation to one’s life. Loyalty and generosity towards one’s family are admirable qualities. But if one is trying to apply those values to a dysfunctional familial context, all that does is enable and perpetuate abusive tendencies within a family where all the members suffer.

I have seen too many people in my travels to the Middle East who have essentially become slaves to their family’s will, forgoing all individual happiness to conform their family’s definition of pride. This can manifest itself in the artist who gives up his dream to become an engineer or the son/daughter giving up the person they love because they didn’t fit the appropriate racial/religious/socioeconomic profile.

If an individual caves into their family’s demands, that breeds resentment. If they defy their family, this creates an enormous amount of strife that can result in total estrangement. There is no middle-ground of agreeing to disagree.  This extreme measure derives from the mentality is that anyone who doesn’t fall in line (aka brings shame to the family) must be cut off to show others the high price of what happens when one doesn’t adhere to the family’s notion of honor.

Clearly there is a conflict growing between the collectivist mentality of traditional societies and the newer mentality of individualism that has come hand in hand with certain modernizing efforts. This conflict will continue until these societies reach a point culturally where they can balance familial duty with personal pursuit of happiness.

Closing Remarks

I don’t always agree with some of the pervasive elements of Western culture, especially when it comes to dating. Sometimes I wish we still had more social guard rails that put pressure on people to not act like douchebags. However, if there is too much red tape coming from society or one’s family, it can lead to serious psychological issues where people feel that cannot be their true authentic selves. They instead become slaves to ambiguous notions of morality and duty to which they feel no genuine connection.

While may would say that it is better to be selfless rather than selfish, we also should not give all our power away to our family, society, or anyone else who is only preoccupied with maintaining a certain image and thus cares very little for our actual, emotional well-being.

We shouldn’t try to shame and humiliate others into complying with our specific definition of social acceptability. We should have a healthy tolerance for differing lifestyles. If we really want to see change, we should instead utilize positive reinforcement to inspire a desired behavior or effect.


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